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Bruce Trigger

18th June 1937 - 1st December 2006

Appreciation by
Junko Habu

Bruce Trigger made innumerable contributions to archaeological theory and practice. The depth of his knowledge in the history of social sciences in general and of archaeological traditions in both Anglo-American and non-Anglo-American countries was profound. During the heydays of processual archaeology, Bruce was not afraid to voice his opinions about the danger of environmental determinism and the limitations of positivist thoughts. He actively reevaluated the contributions of non-processual approaches, including the works of Gordon V. Childe, and settlement archaeology initiated by Gordon R. Willey.

In North America, Bruce was one of the first archaeologists to urge others to acknowledge the inherently subjective nature of archaeological interpretations. This recognition paralleled his interest in studying sociopolitical contexts of archaeological practice in various parts of the world. At the same time, he supported the position that this subjectivity could eventually be "overcome by the constraining influences of the archaeological record" (Trigger 2003: 15). This position led him and his students to emphasize the importance of the systematic analysis of a large body of archaeological data. Such a "moderate relativist" perspective was consistent throughout his academic career. According to Trigger (2006: 39), "it is possible ... that archaeological interpretation, although initially highly subjective, becomes less influenced by social biases and less susceptible to political manipulation as the archaeological database becomes more abundant, and, therefore, that an understanding of the past grows more objective as more archaeological research is carried out." In this regard, he was optimistic about the future of archaeological studies and their ability to relive the past in the present.

As a former Ph.D. student at McGill, I was fortunate to get to know Bruce as a teacher as well as a distinguished scholar. Although Bruce was not my main advisor, I learned so much from him during my Ph.D. study at McGill from 1988 to 1996. He gave me a person-to-person tutorial on settlement archaeology for three semesters, through which I was given the opportunity to read many classics of archaeological literature. He read my dissertation chapter by chapter, gave me thoughtful advice, and even proofread the entire bibliography (from which he jokingly said he learned several Japanese words). I could not thank him enough for all the things he did for me. He always treated me fairly, and by expecting work of highest standard from me, he made it possible for me to come this far in my academic career.

After I began to teach theory courses at UC Berkeley, I realized even more how much I had learned from Bruce. His books and articles have always helped me clarify my thoughts. He kept providing me with guidance until the last minutes: in his last e-mail message to me in October 2006, which was a reply to my question about the future direction of anthropological archaeology, he told me to reread the second to last chapter of his revised edition of "A History of Archaeological Thought (2006)" carefully. I was so used to asking him questions and receiving encouragement from him that I now feel totally lost without his responses, but his books and articles will continue to provide us with guidance.

  • Trigger, B.G. 2003. Introduction: understanding the material remains of the past, in B. Trigger (ed.) Artifacts and Ideas: Essays in Archaeology: 1-30. New Brunswick (NJ): Transaction Publishers.
  • Trigger, B.G. 2006. A History of Archaeological Thought. 2nd Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

A reflection on Bruce and Barbara Trigger based on
oral-historical interviews and personal correspondence

By kind permission of The Bulletin of the History of Archaeology and Rosalyn Trigger.
Pamela Jane Smith

Bruce G. Trigger, a world-esteemed, multi-talented and many-facetted intellect, a great and brilliant archaeologist and historian, died on 1 December 2006 in Montreal leaving "the world a smaller and saddened place"1. His wife, Barbara Welch, a lesser-known but equally sophisticated thinker, died of heart failure on 18 January 2007. "They were a team,"2 observed Barbara's sister. Although obituaries and tributes seldom capture even a small part of the depth of a human life, the Triggers, indeed beloved and respected, are here briefly remembered.

Barbara Welch came up to Cambridge in 1958, pursuing her life-long fascination with volcanoes; "she had a thing about islands,"3 commented fellow undergraduate geographer, Elizabeth Staley. Arriving just 10 years after women were first awarded degrees by this august, ancient, all-male university, female numbers were still capped at 500 and women were still not yet allowed to be members of men's colleges. "We stuck together [in classes] we were outnumbered ... 10 to one!" Barbara remained indefatigable, described as the "brainiest"4 of an already highly-selected lot, she was a keen caver and an adventurous, entertaining cook who hung her cherished, ripe camembert outside the window, in her hockey boot5, so as to not offend her dinner guests.

In her postgraduate research, Barbara, writing with wit and insight, investigated the geomorphological development of Eastern Caribbean volcanic centres. By 1968, she broadened her concerns to include the human geography of Caribbean population density and emigration and in 1996 published her detailed, cross-societal, methodologically innovative study of West Indian banana growers' associations and their role in the islanders' livelihood.

In 1968, when Barbara married Bruce, he was fast becoming the leading "architect of Canadian archaeology."6 It is little known outside Canada that Bruce had a deep and profound influence on the development of archaeology in his homeland and is seen as one of the great Canadian intellectuals along with Harold Innis, Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan. It is often mentioned with pride that he rejected lucrative offers from prestigious American universities to remain at McGill and train generations of Iroquoian specialists; top Canadian positions are sprinkled with former students.

"He had a very real impact on Canadians in terms of understanding the power of archaeological knowledge ... teaching us to face the social responsibilities of our subject, making us aware all the time of whose history we were studying."7 Bruce supported the First Nations boycott of "The Spirit Sings" exhibition at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary in 1988. "This underlined my increasing awareness of the economic, social, and political problems facing indigenous peoples," he wrote (2006: 249) in his "Retrospection". After the publication of The Children of Aataentsic: a History of the Huron People to 1660 (1976), two volumes which inserted Europeans squarely within the Huron's historical legacy, Trigger was adopted as an honorary member of the Great Turtle Clan of the Wendat Confederacy.

"The consummate academic," private, somewhat formal, always with "a shirt and tie on,"8 his first PhD candidate, Robert Pearce remembers him as impeccably generous, judicious and fair. He was simply a "totally decent human being", states Marti Latta.9 As one of Bruce's last PhD candidates, Jay Cunningham found "my weekly meetings with Bruce Trigger to be awe inspiring events," long animated discussions, interrupted spontaneously by Bruce jumping to grab an illustrating book from his vast personal library.10 In my own experience, Bruce Trigger always went to the core of my career choices and with a few wise words, determined my direction, inspiring admiration and gratefulness.

Toward the end of his life, Bruce became increasingly concerned about the "capitalist system [as] the most dynamic and ruthless transforming force in human history" (1995: 167). But unlike his mentor, Gordon Childe, he did not become disillusioned or despondent;11 according to Stephen Chrisomalis, he remained hopeful that archaeological knowledge when combined with other disciplines could guide social planning in order to avoid doomsday scenarios. In one of his last e-mail messages to me, Bruce wrote, "I have begun work on a small book addressed to the general reader in which I hope to vent my discontents with the modern world and its leaders and suggest ... some viable alternatives seen from the perspective of an archaeologist." This would have been a much-needed book.

Although Bruce remained calm about his own impending death, in conclusion, I may feel as Gilbert and Sullivan's lyric observes, "That Death, whene'er he call, Must call too soon."12

Sources for further study and references cited

Those interested in accurate biographical details, lists of distinctions, publications and Trigger's graduate students' theses are referred to the thorough documentation and analyses presented in a festschrift (2006) edited by Trigger's colleagues, Ron Williamson and Mike Bisson. Numerous excellent obituaries exist. Perhaps the best, Norman Hammond's, appeared in The Times on 7/12/06. Two solid interviews (1995, 2006) and two autobiographical essays (1998, 2006) have been published. Historians will also be pleased to know that Bruce's remaining papers will be available through the McGill University Archives.

  • Trigger, B.G. 1998. Reflections on Encounters with Archaeology, in P.J. Smith & D. Mitchell (ed.) Bringing Back the Past: Historical Perspectives on Canadian Archaeology: 77-92. Hull, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization.
    - 2006. Retrospection, in R.F. Williamson & M.S. Bisson (ed.) 2006: 225-57.
  • Van Reybrouck, D. 1995. On a Creative Middle Ground between the Extremes: an Archaeological Dialogue with Bruce G. Trigger. Archaeological Dialogues 2 (2): 160-71.
  • Welch, B.M. 1963. Volcanic Landforms in the Windward and Leeward Islands. Geographical Articles 2: 43-4.
    - 1968. Population Density and Emigration in Dominica. The Geographical Journal 134: 227-35.
    - 1996. Survival by Association: Supply Management Landscapes of the Eastern Caribbean. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press.
  • Williamson, R.F. & M.S. Bisson (ed.) 2006. The Archaeology of Bruce Trigger: Theoretical Empiricism. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press.
  • Yellowhorn, E. 2006. Bruce Trigger on his Life's Work in Archaeology, an Interview. Journal of Social Archaeology 6 (3): 307-27.
  1. Ontario archaeologist, Marti Latta, correspondence,17/04/07.
  2. Janet Welch, in conversation, 19/04/07.
  3. Fellow Cambridge undergraduate and geographer, Elizabeth Staley, in conversation, 13/04/07
  4. Both quotes, Cambridge classmate, Janet Upward, correspondence, 17/04/07
  5. Cambridge classmate, Patricia Peckham, in conversation, 29/04/07.
  6. Bruce's former PhD student, Eldon Yellowhorn, archaeologist and member of the Piikani Nation; Eldon is a pioneer of Internalist archaeology which is archaeology practiced of, by and for the First Nations peoples. In conversation, 20/04/07.
  7. Ron Williamson, former Trigger PhD student and Director of Archaeological Services Inc. a large, successful CRM firm in Ontario, in conversation, 25/04/07and correspondence, 27, 29, and 30/04/07.
  8. Robert J Pearce, correspondence, 16/04/07.
  9. Marti Latta, correspondence, 16/04/07.
  10. Jerimy J. Cunningham, correspondence, 16/04/07; in conversation, 19/04/07.
  11. Stephen Chrisomalis, former Trigger student and current McGill Lecturer who now has the honour of occupying Bruce's office, in conversation, 28/04/07; correspondence, 27/04/07.
  12. Many of us have delightful memories of the Triggers as faithful patrons of the McGill Savoy (Gilbert & Sullivan) Society. Colonel Fairfax from "Yeomen of the Guard", quote suggested by George Cummings, current President of the McGill Savoy Society.